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commonwealth, soldiers, shot at dawn, alleged, cowardice, desertion, shell shock, 
combat stress, ptsd, world war one, ww1, haig, butcher, war, criminal
Half the population are bullied ... most only recognize it when they read this

Shot for cowardice, desertion and insubordination - or murdered for shell shock?
Combat stress, war neurosis, shell shock

Never in the field of human conflict has so little been gained by the death of so many.

During the Great (sic) War of 1914-1918 around 9 million men lost their lives in one of the greatest acts of barbarity and futility the world has ever seen. This compares to an estimated 14 million deaths during all wars in the previous century. The heroism and sacrifice of troops in the trenches is probably without parallel. However, during the war, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot on the orders of military top brass and senior officers. In contrast, the Germans only executed 25 of their own. The Americans executed none of their soldiers.

The pretexts for execution for British soldiers had a common theme: many were suffering shell shock (also called "war neurosis" or "combat stress" and now recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD), and most were deliberately picked out and convicted "as a lesson to others". Charges included desertion (walking around dazed and confused suffering from PTSD), cowardice (ditto), or insubordination (any minor action that could be pressed into service as an excuse for execution). Some were simply obeying orders to carry information from one trench to another. Most of those shot were young, defenceless and vulnerable teenagers who had volunteered for duty. They were selected, charged, and subjected to a mock trial often without defence one day, convicted, then shot at dawn the following day. Eye-witness accounts suggest many faced their death with a gallantry absent in their accusers.

General Haig, when questioned, declared that all men accused of cowardice and desertion were examined by a Medical Officer (MO) and that no soldier was sentenced to death if there was any suspicion of him suffering shell shock. The Under-Secretary of State for War also and repeatedly misled the House of Commons on this matter. In fact, most soldiers accused of cowardice and desertion were not examined by an MO, and in the few cases where a medical diagnosis of shell shock had been made, the medical evidence was rubbished or ignored and the man was convicted and shot anyway. General Haig not only signed all the death warrants but when questioned later on this issue lied repeatedly. General Haig's behaviour in choosing to murder his own men places him in the category of war criminal.

The generals' sterile belief was that anyone suffering shell shock was malingering. In fact in the generals' minds, shell-shock and malingering were one and the same thing. Amongst the Western nations involved in World War 1, the British Military were the furthest behind in understanding trauma, and such steps as were taken by the British Forces towards dealing with trauma were for the sole purpose of returning men to the Front as quickly as possible. So obsessed were British Generals with making accusations of cowardice and malingering that it is more likely to be projection; weak, inadequate, cowardly, but aggressive individuals project their weaknesses onto others in order to distract and divert attention away from their own weakness and inadequacy. This mentality still thrives in employers who blame employees suffering stress for not being able to cope with their job and for being weak and inadequate. Anyone indulging in a blame-the-victim strategy is revealing their own inadequacy.

Documentation on these atrocities was kept secret for 75 years and only recently have the circumstances become clear. In the intervening period, the families of these men have suffered shame, humiliation and embarrassment, compounded by the government's refusal to allow the families to mourn these men alongside their comrades. For these families, an awful guilty secret has blighted their lives and financial hardship has been heaped upon them through the actions of neighbours, landlords, employers and gossips exhibiting the prejudice of a misinformed public.

The UK government has persistently refused to grant posthumous pardons to these men. The passage of time, declared Defence Secretary John Reid in September 1998, means that grounds for a pardon on the basis of unsafe conviction "just did not exist". Clearly he's not read the documents and has no intention of reading them. His specious and insubstantive argument betrays an unwillingness which suggests ulterior motives.

The UK government's refusal to consider a pardon makes sense when you realise that to do so is to open the door to:

The real test of character is how one faces up to and deals with the unpleasantness of one's behaviour and those of one's colleagues and predecessors. The shooting of 306 British and Commonwealth World War 1 soldiers for spurious reasons remains one of the grossest unresolved injustices of the last 100 years and is exceeded only by the compounded injustice of successive governments' refusal to grant these men posthumous pardons such that their names can be cleared and their families and descendants can mourn their loss.

Posthumous pardons will ultimately be granted. The government's dithering would appear to be for the purpose of waiting till all the witnesses and their immediate successors have died. In the meantime, by perpetuating the injustice and shame the government is itself exhibiting the same kind of cowardice which fuelled the atrocity.

There is nothing to be achieved by continuing this policy of refusal. The British Government now needs to do the decent thing and admit that the policy of refusal to pardon was a mistake. Only when posthumous pardons are granted can forgiveness and healing begin.

Progress is being made. In the year 2000, relatives of the 306 murdered soldiers were allowed, for the first time, to march alongside World War 1 veterans on Remembrance Day and lay wreaths at the Cenotaph in London.

On a wider front

The horrific loss of life in WW1 was due largely to the incompetence and abuse by officers (situated a safe distance from the fighting), military top-brass (situated at an even safer distance from the fighting) and government officials and ministers (situated in a different country).

The principal strategy in trench warfare was to send troops over the top to walk across no-man's land with the objective of reaching the enemy's trenches and shooting them. The distance between front-line trenches varied from a few yards to several hundred yards or more. However, the ground between the trenches was usually flat, exposed, without cover, deep in mud, littered with bodies and body parts, remains of ordnance, shell holes and barbed wire. The enemy were equipped with machine guns, who with unimpeded vision could mow down approaching troops with small risk to themselves.

One could understand General Haig relying on this tactic for a couple of weeks, even a couple of months. He was following strategies recommended in his military textbooks whereby battles until then had been fought in this manner. But why did it not dawn upon him that sending a battalion of troops over the top and walking through exposed territory that virtually every soldier would be shot by machine gun fire before reaching the enemy's trenches? If any soldier did make it to the opposing trenches he would be able to shoot perhaps one or two enemy before himself being shot. In other words, the likely kill ratio is probably 50-1 or more. For every enemy soldier killed, 50, perhaps 100 of your own soldiers would be killed.

Exhibiting a sterility of conformist dogma, the generals pursued this unwavering strategy for four years. Inability to learn from experience, however unpleasant, is a feature of sociopathic personality. Even the new branch of military psychiatry, formed towards the end of World War 1 to study shell shock (PTSD), had as its objective not the care of those so injured but the rapid return of men to the front line to take place in more carnage. The Army's new branch of military psychiatry fell into decline after the war ended.

It now appears that General Haig's policy was to sacrifice the life of every male between the ages of 16 and 65 in the allied world in an increasingly futile attempt to kill every enemy soldier. The side whose entire population of males were depleted first would be the loser. The German surrender was prompted more by increasing mutiny than any other reason. On the Allied side however, objecting to General Haig's policy of mass suicide was the quickest route to court martial and execution.

For this, General Haig was awarded an Earldom.

The families of those murdered have lived with shame for nearly a century. It's time to address the injustice. Write now to

The Prime Minister
The Rt Hon Tony Blair MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

Keep your letter brief (2 sides maximum), polite, factual, and point out that the government is regarded as exhibiting the same cowardice for refusing to grant pardons.

Note on shell shock / PTSD
PTSD is not a mental illness but a psychiatric injury. The condition is described in simple English at stress/ptsd.htm. That page contains links to other PTSD sites around the world, as well as to the book Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: the invisible injury, 2004 edition by David Kinchin.

More information

"There is no doubt that these shootings in cold blood of men for desertion and cowardice (so-called) are repugnant to the great majority of the people of this country."
Ernest Thurtle (1884-1954)
MP and death penalty abolitionist

The Shot at Dawn Campaign aims to secure millennium pardons for British and Commonwealth soldiers executed during the First World War. A memorial to the 306 soldiers was dedicated on 21 June 2001 in The National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Lichfield, Staffordshire, England.

Further reading

Shell-shock: a history of the changing attitudes to war neurosis, Anthony Babington, Leo Cooper, 1997, ISBN 0-85052-562-4

Shell shock, Wendy Holden, 1998 (published to accompany the Channel 4 series)

Shot at Dawn, Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, 1999, Leo Cooper, ISBN 0 85052 6132

For a comprehensive list of books on World War 1 see

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